The biggest news Oscar-wise of the past week has involved a film that, as it turns out, won't play into the season at all, Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," which Warner Bros announced on Monday was being delayed, with the studio shifting the movie from its Christmas Day release to summer 2013. A spokesman for the studio said: "Based on what we’ve seen, Baz Luhrmann’s incredible work is all we anticipated and so much more. It truly brings Fitzgerald’s American classic to life in a completely immersive, visually stunning and exciting way. We think moviegoers of all ages are going to embrace it, and it makes sense to ensure this unique film reaches the largest audience possible.”
And while some have suggested that the date shift is an indicator of the film being problematic, we're inclined to give the benefit of the doubt here. This isn't "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," this is a film being moved off an insanely crowded date (including the release of another film starring its lead), months in advance. And let's not forget, exactly the same move was made with Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge." Originally slated for a Christmas 2000 release, it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2001 and wound up with eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Our gut says that we'll see "The Great Gatsby" as a contender in next year's Oscar race.
But it got us thinking about release dates, and the point at which studios and mini-majors decide to unveil their films, and effect this has on the awards race. 'Gatsby' looked like it was going to be one of the last films of the season to be premiered. Instead, it'll be one of the first films of 2013 to show its wares. Each approach has its advantages, and it's impossible to say which would have been the most successful. But what time of year proves the most fruitful for awards fare (and does it even matter)?
Historically, awards fare has been crammed into the last few months of the year, with the idea that voters would forget about anything that had been released earlier in the year. And indeed, in the last decade, only two Best Picture Winners, "The Hurt Locker" and "Crash," were released in theaters before October. But that being said, one consequence of the Best Picture field being widened is that there seems to be more room for non-fall movies.
In the ten ceremonies between 1999 and 2008, only six Best Picture nominees -- "The Sixth Sense," "Gladiator," "Erin Brockovich," "Moulin Rouge!," "Crash" and "Little Miss Sunshine" -- were released in the summer or earlier. That's a little over 10% of nominees -- no wonder studios felt more comfortable piling releases up in November and December. But in 2009, when ten Best Picture slots were up for grabs, there were four summer releases, in "The Hurt Locker," "District 9," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Up." The following year, another four: "Inception," "The Kids Are All Right," "Toy Story 3" and "Winter's Bone." Last year, with nine nominees, there were three films from earlier in the year: "The Help," "Midnight In Paris" and "The Tree Of Life."
That's a fairly significant upswing in all cases, and almost certainly a by-product of the broadening of the field, allowing more nominations for films that weren't quite so fresh in the mind to stay in the fray. There is still the risk of a film being labelled a front-runner too early, or struggling to stay in the conversation over months and months, but what you might lose in terms of being the exciting new kid on the block can be made up by getting a second wind of publicity when the DVD release comes around, and by being able to get copies into Academy hands early. Last year, for instance, Summit's "A Better Life," which virtually no one saw in theaters, was the first screener to land on Academy doormats. Months later, relatively unknown lead Demian Bichir won a Best Actor nomination. All of this bodes relatively well for this year's early-year contenders -- "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" and "The Dark Knight Rises" -- and certainly suggests that "The Great Gatsby" shouldn't be counted out for the 2014 ceremony any time soon.
But ultimately, the majority of films that prove to be contenders come later in the year, and that's likely to be the case in 2012 as well. And generally speaking, the later the better. Venice, Telluride and TIFF are all key launching pads for the awards calendar, but the films that premiere there tend to wait a few months before heading out to the general public. Last year's "Moneyball" was the first Best Picture nominee to get a September roll-out since "American Beauty" thirteen years earlier, a firm indication that it's a tricky month for awards fare. It can be hard to find the oxygen of publicity within all the festival fare, and it's something of a no man's land in terms of the awards narrative: the conversation is already underway, yet it's too early to shake up the race.
Now, this doesn't mean that the September 14th release for "The Master" isn't going to work: with Venice and TIFF premieres, it's clear that the Weinsteins hope the film will be kept aloft by critical support, and last week's screening indicated that could well be the case. And Warners certainly have their hopes that a near-identical date to "Moneyball" will help their own baseball movie, "Trouble With The Curve." But it's also telling that having fallen short in recent years with "The Informant!," "The Town" and "Contagion," none of which got major legs with the Academy, the studio moved their big grown-up hope, "Argo," into October.